On paper, Titanfall doesn't sound particularly innovative or exciting. It's a sci-fi multiplayer first-person shooter from the creators of Call of Duty. What isn't these days? But Respawn Entertainment's debut game manages to be much more than the sum of its parts. It compels not through bombastic set pieces and easily marketable bullet-point features. Instead, it's thrilling simply because the mechanics are so thoughtfully crafted.
Nearly every aspect of the game feels like it's been designed for fun. Equipped with a jet pack, it's surprisingly entertaining to simply run through the environment. You can wall-run, jump up to ledges, and scale heights rather easily. This ability adds a nice verticality to combat, without becoming too centered around aerial combat, a la Tribes.
Being nimble makes ground combat incredibly effective, even when facing the titular "Titans," large armored suits that can be summoned at whim. Regardless of your loadout, you'll be able to cloak at any time (so long as the ability isn't cooling down), letting you sneak around the environment for stealth kills--or more crucially, to get behind a Titan. You'll also be able to jump on top of those mechs. Jump onto a friendly one, and you'll be able to use the height advantage to reach even higher parts of the map. Jump onto an enemy ship, and you'll attempt to take it down, Shadow of the Colossus style.
The gunplay is also satisfying, with an assortment of weapons that are fun to use. My favorite? A pistol that can lock onto targets within a short range. Essentially, by having your cursor over someone for a few seconds, you'll be able to trigger an automatic headshot. While it may sound overpowered, it isn't exactly the easiest to use--a rapidly moving target can easily disrupt the locking process. Instead, it's best used stealthily against unaware opponents. Other, more powerful weapons are also effective at fighting the Titans.
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There are numerous ways to take down the Titans because, when properly used, are a force to be reckoned with. Respawn's takes more of an "armor" approach to mechs than the typical hulking robots that the genre is known for. Stepping into a Titan feels more like jumping into body armor than a lumbering piece of metal. They're quite agile, although sluggish enough that doing combat with them feels impactful. Here, you can unleash a barrage of weaponry on soldiers and other Titans. You can even telepathically capture bullets and missiles and throw them back at enemies. You definitely feel empowered when riding one of these.
Smartly, Titans are easily accessible. Assuming there's one available, they can be called upon almost any time by pressing up on the D-Pad. One will drop from the sky a la Starhawk, and you'll be able to "embark" in one immediately. With ground troops being so nimble and Titans so readily accessible, battles become rather frenetic, with players being able to move from one point of the map to another quickly. The balancing between soldiers and Titans encourages interesting and fair skirmishes where no one thing seems overpowered.
When Titans take sufficient enough damage, they are "doomed." You can continue trying to push your Titan to its very limit, or you can eject, launching high into the sky. Ejecting is quite thrilling, and can be used as a great way to reach the highest points of a map. It also makes you quite vulnerable: more than once I saw players shooting down a recently-ejected pilot mid-air.
This mech-on-man combat is enhanced by truly polished presentation. With a cinematic introduction that begins every match, and constant HUD chatter by NPCs, Titanfall looks, sounds, and feels like a carefully-crafted single-player campaign. But it's not. There's actually no single-player component at all. Instead, Respawn has created a multiplayer experience that has all of the cinematic trappings of a campaign, but the emergent gameplay of online competition.
Even the conclusion to matches are cinematic, rewarding affairs. At the end of a match, the winning team must be evac'd out. A countdown appears and a point on the map is marked. Players must not only find a way to the LZ before time runs out, but must also survive the onslaught from the other team trying to kill them. Being killed or left behind won't mean you lose, but you'll miss the significant point multiplier that accompanies a successful extraction.
I find myself often cynical about shooters given the industry's oversaturation of the genre. But Titanfall proves that you don't need amazing graphics or gimmicky new "features" to innovate. Above all, a game simply needs to be fun.